When it comes to medieval Japanese culture, a person who is not engaged in Japanese painting, growing bonsai, studying the history of Japan, professionally or as a hobby, first thinks of night stalking mercenary ninja, refined courtesans geisha and Sanjuro (brave samurai). The latter will be discussed in this article or rather their way of committing suicide without staining their honor.
Ritual suicide in Japanese sounds like seppuku. Harakiri (hara – stomach, kiri – cut) is a vulgar name that is used only by foreigners but not in in Japan. Approximate essence of this phenomenon is comprised in the following: the warrior had to take his short sword (wakizashi) and rip his belly with it. However, there were different variations of seppuku which I will discuss later.
This ritual has appeared with the birth of the samurai, it is difficult to make more precise statements – first descriptions of the process are found only in the Japanese military epics (gunki). Death was an important moment for the samurai to prove their own generosity and dedication to the master: control over body and spirit, dedication, courage and concern for the posthumous reputation are especially evident in the seppuku suicide.
One of the earliest references is found in Hogen Monogatari ("The Tale of Hōgen") – the legend of the military uprising in 1156. Mighty warrior Minamoto-no Tametomo (it is said he was two meters tall, what is even now something out of the ordinary for the Japanese), having realized that he would be defeated soon, ripped his belly. Samurai of the later period considered this event to be the beginning of the bloody custom.
In order to understand how the custom developed, we are going to compare two military novels, two works on the deeds of the Japanese warriors: "The Tale of the Heike" (Heike Monogatari, written at the beginning of the XIII century) and "The Story of the Great Peace" (Tayheyki, written in the end of the XIV century).
In the first one only six people committed suicide in the way similar to the one that would later become the most "honorable" to pass away. Thus, despite the fact that in the early period of their existence the samurai considered the noble way of passing away to be very important and appreciated the selfless actions, especially in critical situations, the ritual of seppuku had not yet been fully developed and and there were no instructions regarding how to carry it out or indications that other ways of going to another world were not worthy of a samurai. Here is one of the episodes:
In the battle on the river Uji a warrior named Minamoto-no Yorimasa ordered his vassal to cut his, Yorimasa's, head, but he replied: "I find it difficult to do so. If you first plungе a sword into yourself, I will cut off your head." Acknowledging the difficulty of the situation for the vassal, Yorimasa killed himself.
On the other hand, in "The Tale of the Great Peace" two thousand one hundred and forty people killed themselves by ripping their bellies. Here's how one of these scenes is described:
When losing the war Kamakura shogunate forces led by General Hojo Nakatoki arrived at the temple in the province Oomi, their number was reduced to about five hundred mounted warriors. Nakatoki understood their desperate situation, realized that it was the time to commit suicide (samurai tried not to surrender, not only because it was considered a disgrace, but also because their captivity could prove something more terrible than suicide). Before going to another world, the general delivered a speech in the courtyard of the temple in front of the loyal troops: "I know that the fate of the house Hojo is predetermined, even though you followed me right up to the present day. Honoring the Way of bow and arrows and mindful of our long relationship, I can not find words to express how much I appreciate your sincerity. Despite the fact that I sincerely hoped I could reward you, the fate of our clan will not let me do it. Now I have to kill myself to pay the debt of my life. I will send my head to Ashikaga clan* to save you from punishment." Having said so, the general thrust the sword in his stomach. Soon his soldiers followed him in his last journe, and, as it is written in the composition, "the corpses filled the whole yard, so this place looked like a slaughterhouse."
It is clear that here suicide is a way to prove one's loyalty to the master. In "The Story of the Great Peace" much more mentions of this action can be found, the process of commiting suicide is much more ritualized (if earlier soldiers had beheaded themselves, lunged at their own swords, rushed into the burning houses, here they usually just ripped their bellies). Over time seppuku became the most praised and "noble" way for a samurai to leave this world. It should be noted that in the initial stages seppuku was mainly committed by samurai on the battlefield when they understood they were on the losing side in order not to surrender and lose face. This action, particularly in those cases when a warrior released the guts through the wound in the stomach, symbolized fury and determination, will and self-control.
During the reign of Ashikaga (1336 – 1573) ripping one's own belly began to be used as punishment, i.e., a guilty samurai would be sentenced to it. During this period the practice of attracting a second (kaishaku), who was to stand behind the one committing suicide, ready to behead him with a sword, spreaded. However, the act of seppuku committed single-handed was considered the most brave and respected, and writing a poem before death with a stick dipped in one's own blood was thought to be especially noble. The fact is, when committing the ritual vital organs might have not be affected, so the samurai could await the death a few hours. Therefore, only few dared to take such extreme measures.
In the Tokugawa period (1603 – 1868), the last period of the reign of the military class in Japan, the ritual suicide reached its most sophisticated and codified form, there had been changes, reflecting the onset of the peacetime in the country – Tokugawa Ieyasu put an end to the infighting, so that samurai got much fewer opportunities to show their military prowess. Respectively, although samurai had not committed seppuku on the battlefield in the time, it had become the only capital punishment for samurai, especially for the higher ranks – other forms of deprivation of life were considered a disgrace.
Firstly, ritual suicide was clearly stated: how to take a bath before death, how to perform the ritual of purification, which hairstyle and clothing are the most appropriate – all was governed by the relevant regulatiosns. The sentenced was to sit on two tatami-mats, then he was given a tray with two cups of sake and a plate with a light breakfast. The process of serving had also been strictly defined. After the ritual meal on a wooden stand tray would be brought a ceremonial sword wrapped in white paper in the middle (to hold). Behind the sentenced was his second. Every step, every movement of the ceremony was carried out in the strict accordance with the rules. Secondly, in the era of the Tokugawa appeared the term of "seppuku with a fan". This meant that for the guilty it was only necessary to reach for the sword, after that he was immediately beheaded. Sometimes he was even presented a fan or a wooden sword (hence the name). This is how the process of ritual suicide looked in its most "civilized" stage during the era of the sunset of the regiment of warriors, the gradual decay of the samurai culture. Here we see the emasculation of the original essence of the action, "mutating" tradition.
Samurai had ruled the country for nearly 700 years. During this time they have left a deep mark on the development of Japanese culture, their influence is indelible. When the Japanese militarists required to carry out the propaganda during the pre-war period and the Second World war, they turned to the rich heritage of the selfless ancestors, used the works of samurai thinkers. "Generosity" of the voluntary withdrawal of life is reflected in the actions of kamikaze pilots and probably the most famous case of the seppuku in the second half of the XX century was the death of a prominent Japanese writer Yukio Mishima (1925 – 1970).
By no means representatives of modern Japanese youth are concerned about the legacy of the military class of the Middle Ages, but in the respective rankings Japan occupies a high place in the number of suicides per capita. Such a moral choice in Japan was never considered either mortal sin, as in the Judeo-Christian model or something reprehensible. Last but not least, this situation has been affected by the honor code of the warriors of medieval Japan who committed seppuku for various reasons: to prove their loyalty to the master, following him in the last journey, to wash away the shame of any wrongdoing, to avoid dishonor, not to surrender to the enemy.
In 2007 the Minister Tosikatsu Matsuoka committed suicide due to a political scandal. The former mayor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara called him "a true samurai" who cleared his good name.
* – the opposing side – approx.'s